Before they were called Christians in Antioch, Jesus’ disciples were known as followers of the way (Acts 9:2) – Jesus said he was the Way, the Truth and the Life. He is the only way that we can be saved, the pilgrimage to him is the only one worth the effort; there is no other to whom we bow, none other through whom salvation comes. It is because of the vital importance of this that Christians have always warned against false teachers – only by fidelity to the traditions passed on orally and in writing could anyone be sure they were not, inadvertently, worshipping someone other than Jesus.
The early Church struggled from the beginning with this problem, some did not even accept the words of St John himself, and persisted, as some still do, in arguing that Jesus was not the Messiah come in the flesh. Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Christians place huge emphasis on their Apostolic descent – and yet parted company nearly a thousand years ago; as Chalcedonians they parted company from the Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox even earlier – A.D. 451. Whilst sects come and go, these splits have persevered, and now we can even have the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow meet as brother bishops. Some see this as syncretism, others as the Holy Spirit moving the hard hearts of men to recognise the truth that although Christ is the only Way, there are many directions to him. It is, of course, as it always will be, true that some will reject other traditions and insist that only their own one will lead to salvation, citing their own tradition as evidence: indeed I have seen Catholics and Orthodox cite exactly the same texts to show that the other is a false Church. After a thousand years and a splintered and broken Christendom, and in the face of a new threat from militant Islam, it might be that men are beginning to realise that this line is simply ploughing the sand. One can close one’s eyes to the evident signs of Grace working in many Christian Churches, but all that means is you fail to see what is there.
Where St John, St Paul, St Jude and St Peter all warned against false teachers in their epistles, they were warning against those who held false beliefs about what the Church later came to define as dogma in the Creeds; they were not writing about men and women who accepted that Christ was the Messiah in the flesh and confessed him Lord and accepted salvation via the Resurrection, but who disagreed on matters there is no evidence they had ever considered, such as the procession of the Holy Spirit and the place of the Bishop of Rome.
Here, at AATW, we have Christians of just about all shades. We do not have everything in common, but we do have the fact that we all believe in Jesus and the Nicene Creed. Our differences are ones over which theologians have wrestled and blood been shed, and many theologians now think differently from their predecessors and do not see many of the obstacles as being critical. Perhaps, after the experience of this Pope, some of those who are used to insisting that his verdict is final, might be recalled to the virtues of a less monarchical and more conciliar approach? God works for the good in all things, even if we cannot see it.
Back in the 1420s the Catholics and the Orthodox had an opportunity to come together. They failed to do so. Within a quarter of a century of that failure, the flag of Allah flew over the Hagia Sophia. Those who refuse to learn from history are condemned to repeat it. There is one Way, but within our Christian traditions, many ways of getting there. It may take the sight of the flag of Allah flying over the Vatican before the message of the need for unity is heeded – I hope not.